A Portrait Painted By The Sun

A Glimpse Into The NCR Photo Archive

By J.T. Ryder

“Photography records the gamut of feelings written on the human face, the beauty of the earth and skies that man has inherited, and the wealth and confusion man has created. It is a major force in explaining man to man.”

~Edward Steichen

Cash Registers being manufactured in 1907 at a Dayton NCR Plant

The vicariously innate power of imagery pulls us past the boundaries of our own existence. We see moments frozen in time as we look into the sepia-toned eyes of a young girl as she is looking towards her future. We take in the destruction that the flooding waters wrought, the images holding in sharper clarity the devastation and rejuvenation, conveying more of the story than mere words could capture. This is our own history photographically fixed forever. This is the NCR photo archive.

In 1999, over the course of three months, trucks made their way to and from Building 28 at NCR and the Archive Center at 224 N. St. Clair St., carting various pieces of historical significance. There were over 350 brass and wood cash registers, drawings by Charles F. Kettering and even the desk and chair of NCR founder, John H. Patterson. Among the possessions was a collection of glass plate negatives, magic lantern slides and various other photographic media.

All of this was to be collated, tabulated, cross-referenced and eventually exhibited to the public. In talking with Mary Oliver, director of collections at Dayton History’s NCR archive, I was able to see the breadth of this undertaking. Not only was there the whole logistical aspect of the project, with the cataloguing of the collection, but they were also planning to digitize the collection to make it more readily available to the public as well as aiding in preserving the originals.

How long had this digitization project taken so far? “With the digitizing project, just over a year ago,” Oliver said. “We approached NCR with a plan which would, in two years, digitize and make available online 20,000 images. So this is the first 12,000 of that 20,000, but we hope to go beyond that.”

Rubicon Pharmacy at the corner of Brown St. and Irving Ave. in Dayton

I wondered if anyone had a firm number as to how many artifacts the collection actually held. “The given number we use … which is a very rough estimate … is a million and a half images in a variety of formats. Now, a lot of those are of individual machines (cash registers and other apparatus) and those are broken down further into the parts of the machines, so we have probably 200,000. The million and a half also contains film and other media like that as well.”

The ever-energetic John H. Patterson was not only an entrepreneur, an innovative industrialist and a salesman, he was an educator of sorts, willing to expound on his fervent interests, whether they were business based, about the local community or the beauty of the world at large.

“He was a firm believer that people were visual learners and he had a phrase for it called ‘Teaching through the eye,’” Oliver said. “We have among the collection, for instance, some 68,000 magic lantern slides. The lantern slides are pretty wide-ranging from world history to the United States’ history. There are scenes of some of the early National Park locations. There are things like the Temperance Movement, which was of interest to Patterson. There are even some fun ones like a series of illustrations from “‘Twas The Night Before Christmas,” Oliver added.

With static pictures of Dayton’s businesses and buildings, as well as scenes ranging from events of historic significance to the mundane, the collection, as a whole, encompasses almost every aspect of an era long gone. I asked Oliver if there were any pictures that especially caught her eye and imagination.

“A glass plate negative of Paul Lawrence Dunbar giving a speech in the NCR Women’s Dining Room taken in about 1904.” Oliver explained that, “it is one of the few images that we have that is not a posed, portrait-type of picture … at this point, he has already reached international acclaim, so it’s just a really interesting photo.”

I asked Oliver what the ultimate goal of the Dayton History’s NCR Photo Archive project is.

“We are in the business of preserving these long-term,” she said. “Preservation is only one aspect of this project. Getting the word out and getting these images out and into the public’s knowledge and letting others see what has previously been closed up here in Dayton [is another]. So there is kind of a two pronged approach to this project.”

For more information or to view some of the images that have been digitized, just go to daytonhistory.org and click on the NCR Archive and Photos button in the left hand corner.

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